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The Government Took My Station Wagon 

Now they're trying to kill me

It was big and bright yellow, and it was all mine -- unless my mother needed it. Sure, I didn't like being seen in it, especially in the parking lot of the private high school I attended, where most kids pulled up in cars nicer than the one I drive now. But I didn't care. Anything was better than shuffling over to the carpool line with my tail between my legs to be picked up by my parents. I grew up in that yellow station wagon, both literally and figuratively. We were a two-wagon family, and in some distant future, the story of our lives could be told by some archeologist if he analyzes the stains, rips and cigarette burns that accumulated over time in those cars.

I didn't appreciate the wagons when we had them, and now they're gone. With the exception of one or two automakers who still crank out the things, the SUV has replaced the station wagon, and for that, as for many things, we have the federal government to blame. It's a little-known secret that in the 1990s, federal government fuel-efficiency standards drove most auto manufacturers right out of the station-wagon business.

These standards, called the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards (CAFE) were first passed in the mid-1970s, and were strengthened as the years went on. They were supposed to strengthen national security by reducing dependence on foreign oil, cut air pollution and increase public safety.

CAFE achieved none of this, but in the process, the government did manage to wipe out the station wagon and kill a lot of people. In the decade after the passage of CAFE, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics, cars had become an average of 1,000 pounds lighter, and their wheelbases shrunk by 10 inches.

Tech Central Station -- a Washington think tank dealing with technology issues, and underwritten by, among others, ExxonMobil and General Motors -- reported this month that by the 1990s, when CAFE standards mandated that manufacturers produce vehicles that average 27.5 miles per gallon, most automakers were forced to take station wagons off the assembly line for good.

To get around the regulations, manufacturers started cranking out SUVs instead. Although less fuel-efficient than station wagons -- they get an average of 20.7 miles per gallon -- they fit into CAFE's "light truck" category, which allowed manufacturers to skirt the tighter fuel-efficiency regulations on cars and wagons.

The result? According to USA Today, 7,700 people have died on America's streets and highways for every mile-per-gallon in fuel efficiency gained through 1999. Essentially, that means that since it was passed, CAFE has been responsible for 46,000 fatalities. Don't believe rightwing think tanks or the nation's "McPaper"? Well, the National Academy of Sciences says CAFE has caused or contributed to 1,300 to 2,600 automobile-related deaths each year as well as about 12,000 to 25,000 serious injuries. The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, which also took a whack at CAFE, concluded last year that CAFE regulations were responsible for half the weight reduction in new cars, which it says has caused 2,200 to 3,900 motorist fatalities each year.

But the damage doesn't stop there. Over the last two decades, our dependence on foreign oil has increased, and, according to Tech Central reports, CAFE has added costs to new cars, which has led some consumers to hold on to older, less-fuel efficient cars longer than they would otherwise have because they're both cheaper and safer.

The government solution to the problem? You guessed it: more regulation. A Senate committee is now considering new, tougher regulations aimed at further increasing fuel efficiency and reducing pollution and our dependence on foreign oil. This time around, they've left off the part that promised consumer safety. Details, details.

I'd like to think that if it came right down to it, I'd give my life for my country, but I'm not willing to die for better fuel efficiency or reduced dependence on foreign oil. As far as I'm concerned, they'll have to pry the keys to the station wagon from my cold, dead hands.*

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